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3 Ways to Deal With a Popcorn Ceiling

Bid farewell to this not-so-charming ceiling feature

popcorn ceiling
Photo by BanksPhotos/Getty Images
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Very few things date a space like a popcorn ceiling—and not in a charming way. They're difficult to repair, hard to clean, and catch dust easily; but despite all these cons, their popularity exploded beginning in the late 1950s because they made easy work of finishing ceilings and hiding imperfections. If it's time to bid farewell, there are three popular ways to take on the challenge: scrape, cover with a new layer of drywall, or skim coat with plaster to create a new texture. Which is best? Depends on a lot of things, including the age and condition of the substrate (ceiling). We spoke with drywall and stucco expert Mike Poellinger, owner of Poellinger, Inc., in La Crosse, WI, who filled us in on everything a homeowner should know before deciding how to remove their popcorn ceiling.

Scrape

The method
For this method, you'll want to use a 4-inch utility knife or a drywall knife to chip away at the texture and create a smooth surface. You'll probably need to skim it with a thin layer of joint compound to smooth out imperfections, then sand it smooth before repainting.

Why do it?
This is by far the most common method of popcorn ceiling removal. Scraping your ceiling is a messy and slow process, but it's the most cost-effective and can be completed by one person. However, popcorn finishes and paint applied before 1979 often contained asbestos and lead, respectively, which could be toxic if sent airborne. If you live in an older home, purchase a home test for lead paint, and consult with an expert about testing for asbestos. If it tests positive, do not scrape it.

If your ceilings are not at risk for asbestos or lead paint, but they have been painted, it may be near impossible to scrape them, since the porous popcorn material will have soaked it up. Drywalling over them may be a better option.

Pro tip
A lot of people spray their ceilings with water before scraping to loosen them up, but Poellinger doesn't recommend it. "Not only will it be a sloppy mess, but it will absorb into the ceiling and make it heavy; then it could start to expand and crack. It's more time-consuming, but it's best to scrape it dry."

popcorn ceiling
Photo by BanksPhotos/Getty Images

Very few things date a space like a popcorn ceiling—and not in a charming way. They're difficult to repair, hard to clean, and catch dust easily; but despite all these cons, their popularity exploded beginning in the late 1950s because they made easy work of finishing ceilings and hiding imperfections. If it's time to bid farewell, there are three popular ways to take on the challenge: scrape, cover with a new layer of drywall, or skim coat with plaster to create a new texture. Which is best? Depends on a lot of things, including the age and condition of the substrate (ceiling). We spoke with drywall and stucco expert Mike Poellinger, owner of Poellinger, Inc., in La Crosse, WI, who filled us in on everything a homeowner should know before deciding how to remove their popcorn ceiling.

Scrape

The method
For this method, you'll want to use a 4-inch utility knife or a drywall knife to chip away at the texture and create a smooth surface. You'll probably need to skim it with a thin layer of joint compound to smooth out imperfections, then sand it smooth before repainting.

Why do it?
This is by far the most common method of popcorn ceiling removal. Scraping your ceiling is a messy and slow process, but it's the most cost-effective and can be completed by one person. However, popcorn finishes and paint applied before 1979 often contained asbestos and lead, respectively, which could be toxic if sent airborne. If you live in an older home, purchase a home test for lead paint, and consult with an expert about testing for asbestos. If it tests positive, do not scrape it.

If your ceilings are not at risk for asbestos or lead paint, but they have been painted, it may be near impossible to scrape them, since the porous popcorn material will have soaked it up. Drywalling over them may be a better option.

Pro tip
A lot of people spray their ceilings with water before scraping to loosen them up, but Poellinger doesn't recommend it. "Not only will it be a sloppy mess, but it will absorb into the ceiling and make it heavy; then it could start to expand and crack. It's more time-consuming, but it's best to scrape it dry."

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Cover with drywall

 

Cover with drywall

The method
Affix ceiling-grade gypsum board, which weighs significantly less than standard wall board, right over the existing popcorn ceiling. You'll need to securely screw it into the framing and be proficient at mudding and taping for a seamless job.

Why do it?
This is a better option than scraping if you have lead paint or asbestos, because you can encapsulate the harmful substance instead of sending it airborne. Plus, you'll get the smoothest possible finish, if you mud and tape properly. Alternatively, a team of pros will be able to complete the job in no time. Finally, if the ceiling has damage or if you already need to cut into it to reroute electrical or HVAC, you can make large cuts into the existing substrate without worrying about patching, since they'll soon be covered up anyway.

This method will come at a price—a 4-by-8-foot sheet of ceiling-grade gypsum board costs $9 apiece. It may also be difficult to maneuver the boards singlehandedly if you're DIYing it. And if you have crown molding, you'll likely have to remove it and replace it.

Pro tip
Rent a drywall lift if you're DIYing it. It might cost about $34 per day (The Home Depot; location pricing varies), but it's safer and allows you to get a better handle on the material.
 

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Skim coat on a new design

 

Skim coat on a new design

The method
Yes, it's still a texture, but according to Poellinger, it's making a comeback—and it's fairly easy for homeowners to do themselves. Often found in older homes—pre-popcorn-era—this method involves cleaning and prepping the existing substrate with quick-set drywall mud, applying a bonding agent like joint compound, and then applying a finish compound with a trowel or knife to create a new texture.

Why do it?
Many old-house owners want to recapture the history of the home, and a smooth ceiling won't fit the bill. The most important consideration is to make sure the substrate is structurally secure, since adding a wet product could create more weight than the ceiling can handle and cause it to come down. You might need to consult with a contractor before getting started.

Pro tip
If you opt to skim coat, use a quick-set drywall mud, then touch it up with a ready-mixed joint compound. Don't use a ready-mixed material as your base, as it has a higher moisture content and contains silica, which is prone to causing some shrinkage, affecting your final look.

 

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